In tech age, a case for books

Even though many students use Google more than physical books, a series of panel discussions on Friday concluded that a university press still matters.

The centennial celebration of the Yale University Press culminated with three panel discussions on “Why Books Still Matter” — a collaboration of the Press, the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library and the Whitney Humanities Center — in the Whitney Humanities Center auditorium. In front of an audience of more than 100 people, the panels explored the necessity of books in today’s age of information, in which technology has changed the way people access information.

As University President Richard Levin looks on, law professor Akhil Amar speaks at a panel for the centennial celebration of the Yale University Press on Friday.
Karan Arakotaram
As University President Richard Levin looks on, law professor Akhil Amar speaks at a panel for the centennial celebration of the Yale University Press on Friday.

The second panel, “The Idea of the Press in the Modern University,” specifically addressed the relevance of the Press to students and faculty at Yale today. It featured law professor Akhil Amar ’80 LAW ’84, English professor David Bromwich, who is chair of the Press’s publications committee of senior faculty, American History professor John Demos, School of Management professor Douglas Rae, law professor Anthony Kronman and University President Richard Levin as the moderator.

The panelists agreed on the importance of the University Press — which, as Kronman put it, acts as a “conduit between consumers and experts” — but they offered different interpretations by relating it to their own academic fields.

Amar said he believes the University experience is more about the interaction between students and faculty who will produce the next generation of books rather than accessing a collection the University might possess. Yet, he said, the book still has its niche.

“[The book] enables and forces the author to have something big to say,” Amar said. “A book is a place with an extended argument.”

Books are central in Amar’s teaching: “Now I live to teach students how to write books,” he said.

Rae offered a different perspective: He said information found in books is more easily accessed via Google and other electronic searches. Though he personally loves the physical form of books, he said they have become somewhat obsolete.

“I have a book problem,” he said. “Roughly a third of my books are completely obsolete.”

He admitted to owning a Kindle, an electronic device that can hold over 200 titles.

But even in the age of information, Rae sees the University Press as having a valuable role in lending credibility to published works.

Demos followed with an anecdote about a time when books were scarce and thus read thoughtfully. He said books started to lose their meaning when print culture became part of mass culture.

Levin, who moderated the panel, asked questions after the panelists individually spoke. He asked, “Is it not true that the availability of electronic technology alters the mission of the University Press?”

When the panel opened up to the audience, one student remarked that books matter to his generation only because “they are still on our syllabi.”

Another audience member, Patricia Thurston, a librarian at the Sterling Memorial Library, said the panel tackled an issue that is increasingly relevant to her profession, especially with the emergence of digital publications.

Yale University Press Director John Donatich has been planning the centennial activities for a year.

“It’s a very substantial way to celebrate the Press’s antiquity,” Donatich said. “In this age of information, to argue about the privacy and centrality of the book as an object is important.”

Donatich commissioned the book “A World of Letters” by Nicholas A. Basbanes, which he calls a biography of the press. Free copies were distributed at the panels on Friday.

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